November 9, 2007

What’s Your Story? Michael Moynihan

By: David Donadio

Why the hell would a libertarian move to Sweden?

“For the only reason,” Michael Moynihan answers. “A woman.”

Moynihan, now an associate editor at Reason magazine, the crème de la crème of libertarian outlets, cut his teeth crossing the ocean and plunging his sword deep into the belly of welfare state infidels. After four years writing contrarian screeds, the thirtyish provocateur finally convinced the woman, now his wife, to move back to America with him. “She just got her green card this morning,” Moynihan says with pride.

With college in New England, a stint in the tech world, and his European tour completed, Moynihan now finds himself surrounded on all sides by the like-minded. He’s no longer the sole voice of reason in a roomful of maniacs—and he seems a little disappointed, because he’s been asking for a fight since infancy.

Born into a middle-class family in Massachusetts, he grew up in the deep blue confines of Concord, where his father worked at Raytheon, and his mother at a doctor’s office. In spite of these bourgeois beginnings—or perhaps because of them—Moynihan grew into a rabble-rousing lefty, but he soon grew out of that as well. His transatlantic jollies were the culmination of a short and inevitable transition from teenage Marxism to undergraduate irreverence and Europhilia, and finally to a skeptical sort of moderate conservatism.

Of course, what passes for moderate conservatism in the United States is considered downright insane in Sweden. He had his work cut out for him, and he didn’t take long to get started.

“The second I learned to read Swedish, I caught the biggest paper in Sweden plagiarizing word for word from the New York Times on a daily basis,” Moynihan reminisces. “That kind of made my journalism career there.”

Before long, Moynihan became involved with Timbro, a Swedish free-market think tank where he remains a resident fellow, and was writing regularly for outlets like Expressen and Aftonbladet.

He’s done good work for Reason, too. His debut, “Red Elvis,” was a hilarious review of a book on Dean Reed, a failed American musician who became a state-sanctioned pop star in the Soviet Union. The piece made a good impression on editor Nick Gillespie, who hired him upon his return.

Since then, Moynihan has ruminated on everything from Michael Moore to Hugo Chavez, but Europe still seems to occupy his imagination, as it has ever since college. After what he describes as a very good public high school education, he went off to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he studied German history.

Moynihan supplemented his classroom studies with a healthy dose of extracurricular debate, and was quite public about his political defection. But though he falls easily into the role of provocateur, he’s not an ideologue. His thinking was formed as much as anything by the lunacy and affectations of academia.

“Amherst, Northampton, the entire region is totally nuts,” he laughs. “Every coffee shop was named after some sort of anarchist rebellion. I used to drink at the Haymarket Café, get my hair cut at Bukharin’s.”

“I didn’t really react to things as much as I reacted against things…The first moment of change was being called a racist for opposing affirmative action openly—actually being called a racist by my TA.”

“My first reaction, having been a member of the left, was like this…self-criticism session where I said ‘Well, maybe I am. Maybe I have internalized the patriarchal hegemonic male…,’” he says. “And then I said, hang on, these people are absolutely out of their f—ing minds. And that became abundantly clear to me when discussing things like Cold War issues.”

From there, Moynihan’s leftist beliefs fell like a house of cards. “I used to go to meetings of the Massachusetts Association of Scholars…So after my switch, I found myself one night at Harvey Mansfield’s house in Cambridge.”

Mansfield, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and the other conservative glitterati weren’t influences on Moynihan so much as people with whom to discuss his new identity. “My real interest is breaking with the left, in a way,” he acknowledges. “I Was a Teenage Marxist. That’s my B-movie.”

But neither punditry nor academia promised to pay the bills, so when Moynihan graduated from UMASS in 1997, he went to work as a Web designer on Wall Street. With the tech boom picking up speed, his timing couldn’t have been better, but he never fully relinquished his role as a writer. Soon he’d picked up where he left off, in a new medium: blogging.

“I was an early adopter. I started in 2000, actually—a website called Politburo,” he recounts. “That went really well. There weren’t many people doing it, so it probably wasn’t a reflection of how great of a writer I was, but I was kind of an asshole.”

As for his day job, “web design was just a function of the times,” Moynihan says. “There was a lot of money to be made. I got involved in a number of start-ups, and jumped out of the plane while it was flying into the Andes.”

Moynihan is a natural wiseass, with a knack for tackling topics that allow him to show it. But whatever he’s writing on, he’s thinking about Europe, which he views with cautious optimism. He’s pleased to see free-market reformers winning elections there, and he’s keeping his eye on Nicolas Sarkozy.

“I think it’s a great sign that in this week’s issue of The Nation they denounced him in this foaming-at-the-mouth, fulminating article about how he’s going to benefit the rich in France. Which I think would be great for France right now.”

He’s similarly enthused about David Cameron. “You know, he’s 39 years old, he can moderate the party, and he’s not getting caught masturbating in public parks like half the Tories. They get caught with a stocking around their neck, poppers, and gay porn. What kind of party is that? It’s like an Evelyn Waugh novel.”

Moynihan also spends a lot of time thinking about the legacy of the totalitarian movements of the last century, but he’s less sure of his place in a post-totalitarian era. The Cold War gave him a means of measuring the sanity of his cohorts with respect to settled history—or at least more settled—but it said less about what to believe about everything after. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 had interesting implications for America’s Cold Warriors, that tenuous coalition of Scoop Jackson Democrats and Republicans.

Where does Moynihan fit in?

“Keep in mind that in the 1980s, Reason was a pretty hawkish magazine on the Cold War,” he points out. “I’m not a member of the isolationist block of libertarians, like the Justin Raimondos and the people. I was at a libertarian conference where multiple people spoke about the Second World War as an unjust war.” He shakes his head, and puts up his hands in disbelief.

He’s hardly blind, however, to the perils of foreign interventions. “The Iraq war now has ruined everything, for everyone…The question these days ‘Did you support the Iraq war?’ is like ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’”

Moynihan is clearly frustrated by the state of affairs. With Iraq in tatters, and the left in the right about it, he’s in no position to deliver conservative orthodoxy. “I’ve given up. I’m gonna write on Nazi welfare policy the rest of my life,” he jokes, referring to a piece he wrote on the role of government handouts in Nazi Germany.

Or might he find other Eastern-bloc pop stars and ’60s radicals to make light of? Maybe, he says. “There’s nothing more fun than writing about pathetic, delusional people.”

David Donadio is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.